After studying the results of interviews with thousands of people conducted by his company during the past 12 months, best-selling author and internationally respected researcher George Barna described what he felt were the eight most significant religious trends identified in his firm’s studies. The California-based author of nearly 40 books about spirituality and morality in America listed four trends related to local churches and four trends concerning the spiritual lives of the American people.
Trends Related to Churches
Ignoring reporters’ questions about church growth figures by stating, “church attendance is grossly overrated as a measure of anything that is spiritually significant,” the researcher instead offered four factors that he described as “indicative of the reshaping of the church in the U.S.”
The first of those patterns had to do with the priorities embraced by church leaders. Citing a study conducted mid-year, Barna noted that most local churches essentially ignore three critical spiritual dimensions: ministry to children, ministry to families and prayer. His statistics showed that less than one out of every five Protestant churches deem ministry to families or to children to be among the top priorities of the church. Prayer, he pointed out, is labeled one of the top priorities by less than one out of every 25 churches! He also stated that even though churches build their primary weekly event around the concept of worship, and call the event a “worship service,” less than one out of every five churches rated worship to be a top ministry priority, and that most of those in attendance say they did not experience the presence of God during the service. “The limited significance we assign to the act of worship, as opposed to putting on and being present at a worship event, is found in our data showing that less than one out of every ten church attenders spends any time during a typical week worshiping God, other than when they are at a church service.”
Pressed for insight as to why it is that establishing these factors as a low priority is problematic, Barna replied, “because families are meant to be the faith-center of each individual’s life, children are the most important and impressionable individuals we could possibly reach with the good news of salvation and the substance of a Spirit-led, Scripture based spiritual life, and you cannot have a meaningful and dynamic relationship with the living God unless worship and prayer are at the center of that relationship. For churches to get so wrapped up in other matters suggests that we have lost sight of the end goal, which is not filling new buildings with happy people but filling sin-stained hearts with the forgiveness and power of Jesus Christ, and how that power then transforms the individual’s entire understanding of the meaning of life.”
A second church-related trend defined by Barna is that congregations are rapidly incorporating new technologies into their activities. Among the fastest-growing adoptions are those of big-screen projection systems (now used by almost two-thirds of all Protestant churches) and websites (57% penetration) and e-mail blasts to congregants (56%). Explaining the move toward such mechanisms, Barna commented, “These are tools that draw people to church events, that help churches communicate more effectively, and that have the capacity to provide a more compelling and memorable experience. The integration of these applications into the church’s normal process also conveys an image of cultural sensitivity and relevance to those who are trying to determine if the church has something valid to offer.”
The slow demise of the African-American church community was a third outcome highlighted by Barna. Identifying the decline within the black community of factors such as church attendance, Bible knowledge, faith prioritization, and reliance upon the faith community for support and relationships, the co-author of High Impact African-American Churches expressed his concern. “The black community has traditionally been the people group that has been strongest in its involvement in the Christian faith and lifestyle. There is an intriguing – and unfortunate – correlation between the economic rise of the African-American population and the deterioration of its faith in Christ. Hopefully, as black pastors become aware of this decline, they will address it with wisdom and zeal.”
Barna also pointed out that among the many changes reshaping the church world, one of the most invisible yet significant is the “changing of the guard among the leaders of the leaders.” Referring to the individuals whom the media and general public, as well as pastors perceive to be the leading spokespersons for the Christian Church in the U.S., Barna turned to a study showing that the leading representatives of the Christian faith now include Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes. “For the last two decades, the representatives included Billy Graham, Adrian Rogers, Jerry Falwell, John MacArthur, Pat Robertson, Robert Schuller, and Charles Stanley. As those respected churchmen have aged, retired or passed away, a new generation of leaders has emerged in their wake. Pastors Warren and Jakes are at the forefront of a new class of faith leaders whose message and media skills reflect the changing cultural environment in which they minister.” The research expert also pointed out that the different faith communities in the nation – e.g., mainline, charismatic, evangelical, ethnic – each have their own go-to people, which he sees as being symptomatic of the fragmented nature of the Christian Church in the U.S.
Trends Related to People of Faith
The first of the four shifts pertaining to the faith experience of individuals that the widely quoted trend-watcher described was what he labeled “the energizing of evangelicals.” Although the data show that just 7% of adults are evangelicals, their voice gets an unusually large share of media attention. Further, Barna provided numbers showing how substantially different evangelicals are from the rest of society. “They are by far the most active in evangelism, most likely to read the Bible, to pray, to attend church services, to volunteer at a church, and to engage in a small group during the week, and give away almost three times as much money as do other Americans. They are several times more likely to possess a Biblical worldview as are others, are the only people group among whom a majority consider their faith to be their top priority in life, are more involved in alternative models of church than anyone else, are the most concerned about how their children are raised, and are also the most well-informed among Christians regarding the interaction between their faith in Christ and current public issues.”
Asked why he felt evangelicals became more active in various public and spiritual matters this past year, Barna offered three possibilities. “Certainly the 2004 presidential election, with its heavy emphasis upon evangelicals, gave them platforms for communication and organizing that were not previously available. Second, we also find that increasing numbers of evangelicals are simply fed up with the nonsense that our society is proposing or producing. They have been driven to a deeper relationship with, and reliance upon God, as a result. Third, it appears that a larger share of evangelicals is choosing to exercise their freedom as religious people in America before that freedom is taken away. It’s kind of an example of the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy.”
A second individual-oriented trend has reached what the Californian deems to be crisis proportions. “American Christians are biblically illiterate. Although most of them contend that the Bible contains truth and is worth knowing, and most of them argue that they know all of the relevant truths and principles, our research shows otherwise. And the trend line is frightening: the younger a person is, the less they understand about the Christian faith.” Barna mentioned several studies done throughout the year that explored beliefs related to the existence and nature of God, the holiness and authority of Jesus Christ, the need for and means of salvation, the key teachings of Jesus, the role of a community of faith, and other foundational elements of Christianity. “By and large, people parrot what their parents taught them. Sadly, with fewer and fewer parents teaching their kids much of anything related to matters of faith, young people’s belief system is the product of the mass media.”
The investigation into this problem undertaken by The Barna Group indicates that people are oblivious to committed study of the Bible for various reasons. Among those are the fact that they think they know what is important to know; churches have de-emphasized Bible teaching; families have become too busy and have demoted Bible learning as a family endeavor and priority; most parents rely upon churches to provide Bible training for their children, but churches rely upon volunteers who are ill-prepared to provide meaningful, long-term Bible training; and the messages derived from cultural communications often directly conflict with biblical messages, causing confusion or an outright rejection of biblical themes.
One of the most startling trends revealed by Barna relates to a group he calls Revolutionaries. These are individuals who are deeply committed to Christ, and want more of God in their lives. Frustrated by churches in the attempts to satisfy that longing, these individuals have crafted entirely new spiritual environments that draw them closer to God and other believers, without the help of a conventional church. “There are well over 20 million adults who are pursuing a Revolutionary faith that is reminiscent of the early Church. They are meeting in homes, at work, in public places – wherever they can connect and share their mutual love for Christ and pursue their desire to be obedient servants of God. The energy and passion exhibited by these people is quite refreshing.”
Barna was so taken by the commitment and sincerity of these Revolutionaries that he has conducted more extensive research on the group and has written a book, entitled Revolution, about their thinking and their journey. It is the first of several such books he plans to publish, in addition to helping a variety of Revolutionaries describe their experiences as an outside-the-box follower of Christ. Barna revealed that the book, released in October, has been his fastest selling book to date, which he believes is reflective of the hunger for authentic and genuine expressions of the Christian faith that is in the hearts of millions of Americans.
A final pattern discovered by Barna this year relates to the faith trajectory of the young adult generations (the Baby Busters and the Mosaics). “Overall, they are interested in matters of faith, but they have few assumptions about what a life of faith must entail. They are leaders in the pursuit of new models of faith experience and expression, such as house churches, cyberchurches and marketplace experiences. They are the most prolific practitioners of newer forms of evangelistic outreach, such as Socratic evangelism. They are pioneering language that bridges the gap between postmodern cultural imperatives and first-century biblical principles, to create new buzz words and expressions for believers. And they have certainly championed a novel universe of relational networks in which faith is a cornerstone of friendships and shared experiences.” He predicted that within the next five years young adults will boldly introduce a blizzard of unique expressions of faith that will cause heightened tension with the older generations of believers.
Before closing the session, Barna said he hopes that devoted Christians throughout the country will look upon 2005 as a year in which the challenges they faced motivated them to reconsider the meaning of their life and faith, and to establish a deeper commitment to passionately loving, obeying and serving God. “That’s why we exist,” he suggested, “and everything that draws us toward other purposes or outcomes is simply a distraction. May 2006 be a year of focus on the things that bring pleasure to God and provide genuine meaning for our lives.”
Additional Reading and Resources
- Most Adults Feel Accepted by God, but Lack a Biblical Worldview
- Rapid Increase in Alternative Forms of the Church Are Changing the Religious Landscape
About The Barna Group, Ltd.
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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